Great leaders can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, keeping teams aligned and on task where they may otherwise flounder. A poor leader can make even the most routine projects a nightmare of red tape and redundancy. No one goes out of their way to be anything less than great, but it’s not like there’s a proven step-by-step guide to doing this.
But while there may be no standard path, there is conventional wisdom. That’s why we went out and read 100 articles on the traits great leaders should have and distilled all of it for you here.
10 must-have leadership traits
While compiling this many articles led to finding over a hundred different traits that can help you be a better leader, there are places where many articles intersect — traits that are considered must-haves across the board. All of these traits showed up in at least one in four articles, while the top must-have trait was mentioned in 68 of 100 articles.
So according to 100 writers, here are the leadership traits you must pursue if you want to become a better leader.
1: Being able to delegate (25/100)
One of the toughest challenges for new leaders is learning how to delegate. When you’ve been executing specific tasks for most of your career, you can start feeling attached to them. You might be concerned that no one on your team can perform them as well as you so you hang on for as long as you can.
It’s possible that you’re better at a certain task than the rest of your team. That might be why you became the leader. But the more you hang on to the work you used to do, the less time and energy you can spend actually managing your team. Part of learning to delegate is recognizing the reports that can really shine in a particular field.The rest of it is learning to let go of some of the things you used to do.
2: Confidence (26/100)
When everything’s broken and a team is faltering, they look to their leader for guidance. A great leader is someone who can pull them through and make them feel at ease. That’s a lot harder to do if you’re second-guessing yourself at every turn.
Confidence isn’t about being the loudest in the room. It’s not about sticking to your guns every time. It means trusting in your expertise, your knowledge, and your position as a leader. It means being able to consider new information as it comes in, but not necessarily letting it overshadow what you know just because it comes from the CEO. Confident leaders aren’t concerned with looking good for the board or making the most popular decisions. They do what’s best for their team and the business.
3: Vision (28/100)
While everyone else has their head down executing on the immediate needs of the business, leaders need the ability to look ahead. If you’re constantly blindsided by the market, executives, or whatever else may come at you, you’ll be constantly on the backfoot. That makes it difficult to help your team grow and achieve success since you’re always reacting instead of acting.
Having the vision to lead your team through good times and bad requires awareness into the happenings of the company, the market, and the team itself. You need to be able to see around corners and plot out a course for your team to follow. A great leader has to be a few steps ahead of everyone else so they can help their team get through whatever challenges lie ahead.
4: Creativity and innovation (28/100)
Sure, leaders need to manage routine work and get the basics of their industry right. But something that takes you from being a good leader to a great one is the ability to think outside the box. Leaders have to solve complex problems, and doing so requires creativity.
Innovation can help leaders boost morale, increase revenue, build great teams, and more. If you want creativity from your team, you need to be a great example of it.
5: Accountability (32/100)
A leader needs their team’s trust. You know the old saying; it takes time to build trust but no time at all to lose it. A great way to lose trust is to show you don’t have accountability for your actions. If you make a mistake, own up to it and tell your team. And give them a chance to respond. A monologue doesn’t show accountability, it just checks off a box.
Here’s another side to this trait; as a leader, you should be taking responsibility for everything your team is doing. As a leader, the buck stops with you. You need to be your team’s champion. If criticism comes in from outside the team, be the one to step up and take it. You can then work with your team to fix the problem. By taking one for the team, you’re helping build trust with them.
6: Decisiveness (32/100)
Being a leader means you spend most of your time making decisions while your team does the executing. Depending on your role, you might need to make a call on anything from a new website design to negotiated terms on an enterprise deal. While you should obviously think through every decision, you shouldn’t obsess over them. Spending a week in your office with the door closed to mull over a decision doesn’t make for inspiring leadership.
In a perfect world, you’d make the right decision every time. But sometimes it’s more important to just make a decision and stick with it. As Theodore Roosevelt put it: “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
Once the decision is made, don’t go back on it unless you are absolutely, irreversibly wrong. We have a saying at Unito: “disagree but commit.” That means that even if you appreciate the feedback of your reports, ultimately they have to follow your lead. But it can go the other way too. You might disagree with a report’s decision, but by committing to supporting them in it you might find out they were right.
7: Motivational (35/100)
Speaking of inspiration; your team needs you to be the wind in their sails. This is true whether morale is low or you just need to help them push to the end of the quarter. But motivating your reports isn’t about cracking the whip; it’s about positive encouragement.
The best way to do this is to be an example they can follow. For example, if you need people to start coming in early to get something done, do the same thing yourself. If your reports see you at the office early in the morning, they’ll feel like you’re pulling your weight and putting your money where your mouth is.
8: Empathy and emotional intelligence (42/100)
We might think we’re at our most rational when we’re at work, but that’s not always true. Not only can anyone have a bad day at work, our emotions affect our work relationships more than we’d like to admit. In Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss debunks the idea that human beings are entirely rational; our emotions affect the way we negotiate and communicate.
With that in mind, one of the greatest strengths a leader can have is the ability to read these emotions. Empathy means being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if their situation is completely different from yours. This is necessary if you hope to understand where someone’s coming from during a disagreement. Because while you may have the authority to just tell someone to do something a certain way, that’s often not the best solution.
By building up your emotional intelligence, you get better at reading what motivates the people you’re working with and understanding them. That understanding makes you a better leader; you know what you can get from them, but more importantly what they need from you. You can improve your emotional intelligence through high-stress activities that require collaboration, like climbing a mountain.
9: Authenticity (52/100)
You need your team’s trust. If they feel like you’re not being honest with them — or even hiding things from them — you’re not going to have that trust. Authenticity starts with transparency, something we are pretty radical about at Unito.
To be as authentic as possible, you can start by making all your processes transparent. Did a report ask you how you made a certain decision? Be willing — and prepared — to explain your process. Do the same for hiring, meetings, really anything you can think of, as long as it doesn’t break confidentiality with individual team members. By making transparency the default, you go a long way to being authentic with your team.
10: Communication skills (68/100)
The most common desirable leadership trait by far is being a strong communicator. Nearly everything you do as a leader, from giving feedback to managing projects, relies on communication. If your communication skills aren’t up to snuff, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to do anything — and much of that time will be spent clearing up misunderstandings.
Communication skills go beyond just speaking loudly and clearly. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of communication skills to master, courtesy of The Balance:
- Active listening: active listening means really taking in what someone is saying and asking questions when things aren’t clear.
- Facilitating group conversations: as a leader, you’ll probably be running a lot of meetings. Directing verbal traffic during these meetings is an essential skill.
- Public speaking: being able to give a clear, structured presentation is just as important as speaking clearly in one-on-one talks.
- Verbal communication: what you say, how you say it, and how you can do it better.
- Written communication: from emails to reports and chat messages, you need the ability to express yourself clearly.
Seeing this trait represented across a majority of the articles we read shows just how important communication is. While it’s a skill set everyone should work to improve, it’s twice as crucial for leaders to do so.
5 uncommon leadership traits you should still pursue
The traits listed above are the most common across the 100 leadership articles we read. But popularity doesn’t define value. Here are five less common but equally valuable leadership traits.
1: Continuous self-improvement
Continually improving your skills and knowledge is the best way to keep growing, no matter your role. But while a graphic designer might spruce up their UX skills, there is no shortage of areas for leaders to improve. “Soft skills” alone covers a wide array of skills and traits, all of which can be improved through seminars, reading books, and rigorous practice.
To be a great leader, you have to be open to continual growth. Be eager to learn and open to suggestions. Read books on your industry, leadership, and on the skills your team uses. If you’re not much of a reader, you can always try listening to podcasts.
2: Effective meeting management
How much of your time do you spend in meetings? As a leader, much of what you do involves strategy and communication. And even if remote work has thoroughly changed the way we do meetings, they will always be a big part of what you do. So shouldn’t you get better at them?
Leaders who struggle in meetings can waste hours each day. When you get better at managing meetings, you make them more efficient, which frees up room in your calendar and the calendars of everyone you meet with. Check out some tips for getting better at managing meetings.
3: Conflict resolution
You can have the best team around, and every so often conflict will still arise. Sometimes people just don’t see eye to eye. It might be between team members or with other teams. Left to fester, these conflicts can jeopardize deadlines, lower morale, and make future collaboration that much more difficult.
Emotional intelligence is just one facet of conflict resolution. It gives you the ability to understand each side of an argument, as well as being able to trace the steps that got each party there in the first place. There are other skills you can practice to become better at resolving conflicts. Negotiation is one, communication another.
4: Creating and exemplifying culture
If you want to build the best teams, culture is king. A healthy company culture attracts talent and helps keep it around — both of which should be leadership priorities. No matter what level of the hierarchy you’re situated at, you can work to build and maintain team and company culture.
There’s plenty that goes into building healthy culture. Being transparent with your team is one. Having an attitude of service rather than dominance is another. Build up your team’s values and live up to them. Like any other aspect of leadership, being the example of what you want to see from your team is the best way to make it happen.
5: Giving feedback — and accepting it too
One of your top responsibilities as a leader is to guide your team’s work. If a developer’s workflow is causing problems with other teams, you need to be able to not only tell them in a way that gets through to them but actually be able to nudge them in the right direction. If you’re getting word that one of your reports is difficult to work with, you need to be able to tell them without creating additional conflict. Giving good feedback means being optimistic, constructive, and following up.
But that’s only half of it.
Being a great leader means being open to change. As your team grows and their needs shift, you’ll need to adjust your leadership style. Certain techniques you thought were a sure-fire way to boost morale might backfire tremendously. Maybe your communication skills need work. It’s hard to know if any of this is true if your team doesn’t feel like they can give you feedback. Taking criticism can be tough, but as a leader it’s something you need to be able to do. You can only get a good read on your team when they’re open and honest with you. Real change, and stellar leadership, can only exist where those conversations are possible.
Be your team’s champion
If leadership was easy, everyone would want to do it. You have to exemplify a wide array of traits if you want to be a world-class leader. But there’s plenty of wisdom out there to help you on that journey. You’ve just taken your first step, now get out there and lead.